The 2020 Emmy Awards were certainly one of the most singular in the ceremony’s history. Usually, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences hands out trophies to the best performers and creatives of the previous season’s primetime television at a Hollywood theater each September, but ongoing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic precluded normalcy. Instead, organizers sent broadcasting gear to the homes of more than a hundred nominees, who remotely checked in with host Jimmy Kimmel — and delivered their acceptance speeches — from home. It’s the first-ever Zoom-oriented Emmy Awards, one that felt very specific to a very unique period of time.
Outside of the technological miracle it took to even stage and televise the ceremony, there were plenty of in-show moments that rank among the most memorable in Emmy history. Conversely, there were lots of times when the show fell flat. Here are all the very best and very worst bits of the 2020 Emmy Awards.
Jennifer Aniston is a friend of the Emmys
TV actress turned movie star turned TV actress again Jennifer Aniston was a top contender to take home Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series at the 2020 Emmy Awards for her work as a beleaguered talk show host on the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show. She didn’t win (Zendaya surprisingly took the Emmy home for HBO’s Euphoria), but Aniston still made her presence felt, providing many very funny moments both planned and improvised. (Let’s not forget that the dramatically-nominated actress won an Emmy for her work on the comedy Friends).
In presenting the first trophy of the night (for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy), host Jimmy Kimmel executed an absurd sequence of measures to kill germs on the envelope that revealed the winner’s name, including spraying it with flammable disinfectant and then setting it on fire. Aniston put out the flames, expertly handling a fire extinguisher as if she does this kind of thing all the time. When the flames reared up again unexpectedly, Aniston once again coolly killed the fire. Aniston then rushed out of the Staples Center to get home in time for her category to be called, but she had another surprise in store for viewers. Aniston held an Emmys watch party with a couple of friends, or rather Friends — Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow were in the house, and they sold the jokey premise that they all still live together, as they have since 1994, when Friends premiered.
The intern driving school sketch crashed
The 2020 Emmy Awards leaned way into jokes about nominees and other television industry professionals not being in attendance at the Staples Center with host Jimmy Kimmel, but instead were part of the show digitally and virtually. The evening’s Emmy winners still got their trophies just after their victories were announced, either via remotely unlocking boxes with the shiny hardware inside, or by tuxedo/HAZMAT suit-clad production staffers, who delivered them in person at just the right moment.
Pulling off the latter was a logistical challenge, and early in the Emmys broadcast, producers announced how they planned to do it with a tongue-in-cheek, pre-filmed sketch. Extremely eager, overexcited Emmy Awards interns, it would seem, were the ones tasked with jetting around Hollywood in cars provided by a show advertiser to deliver the statues as quickly and efficiently as possible while also sporting germ-eschewing protective gear from head to toe. But first, these trophy couriers needed to be trained in the fine art of Los Angeles-based stunt driving, and comedian Jo Koy portrayed their teacher. It was a cute, Fast and the Furious-inspired bit, but it wasn’t one that was memorable or uproariously funny. It also couldn’t hold a candle to a real moment that later when viral, in which nominee Ramy Youssef watched the Emmy he just lost get carted away from his house by one of said couriers (screenshot above) who was on standby to deliver it in case he won. Awkward.
Little shows won big
For most of its six-year existence, Schitt’s Creek was a little-noticed show popular primarily with hardcore comedy nerds and anybody who discovered old episodes on Netflix. Produced for the CBC in Canada and airing on the obscure cable channel Pop TV in the United States, the series starred comedy legends Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as Johnny and Moira Rose, a wealthy video store chain owner and his pretentious actress wife who lose everything in a financial scandal and move in to a rundown motel in Schitt’s Creek, a tiny rural town they once purchased as a joke. Along for the ride: Their spoiled adult children David (Daniel Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy). The series about snobs-out-of-water evolved into one about love, inclusion, and family, and in 2020, Emmy voters recognized the low-key, witty show with a historic fervor. For the first time in history, one show swept all the comedy acting categories, winning statuettes for O’Hara, Murphy, and both Levys. The father and son duo also won for Outstanding Comedy Series, a first for Pop TV and all of basic cable and ultimately, Schitt’s Creek won in every comedy category included on the broadcast.
One other major win for a smaller show: Unorthodox, a Netflix miniseries (primarily in Yiddish) about a woman who leaves a seclusive, ultra-traditional religious community, took home an Emmy for directing in a drama, with Maria Schrader emerging victorious over the buzzier Little Fires Everywhere, Watchmen, and Normal People.
Did the Emmys check if these celebs were actually fans?
When it came time in the show for the presentation of one of the night’s biggest awards, Outstanding Comedy Series, Schitt’s Creek fans, and Emmy prognosticators waited breathlessly to see if the sweet Canadian sitcom would complete its sweep of the comedy portion. But rather than host Jimmy Kimmel or a celebrity presenter reading the names of the nominated shows, the broadcast utilized a video package of famous people advocating for each of the eight honored programs.
Some testimonials were lovely — Gabrielle Union is clearly a diehard Insecure super-fan (she’s “Team Lawrence” in that show’s ongoing romantic saga), and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sesame Street‘s the Count jointly stumping for What We Do in the Shadows was delightful. Other celebrities’ plugs felt inexplicable and disingenuous. NFL star J.J. Watt claimed to be very into Amazon’s period piece The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, straining to prove his fan bonafides by drawing parallels between football and the show’s early ’60s comedy world setting. The Michael Douglas / Alan Arkin sitcom The Kominsky Method earned an endorsement from beloved actor and world’s greatest narrator Morgan Freeman, although one remark may suggest he might never have seen the show, and that his remarks were prepared for him. Freeman claims to have stumbled upon the series while channel surfing… which would be hard to do, seeing as how The Kominsky Method is exclusive to Netflix, a streaming service and not a terrestrial network.
Women of color sharing stories of racial bias in the TV industry
Awards shows often feature speakers weighing in on political and social happenings, but rarely does the program itself specially prepare material. The Black Lives Matter movement substantially ramped up in 2020, which included calls to end systemic racism and encourage a stronger diversity of voices in many industries, including entertainment. The 2020 Emmy Awards acknowledged this with a series of interview segments featuring prominent women of color who work in television discussing representation and inclusion.
Emmy-winning Master of None writer Lena Waithe expressed her appreciation for A Different World, one of only a handful of sitcoms of the late ’80s / early ’90s sitcom that depicted the African-American experience. Insecure creator and star Issa Rae related the story of pitching a show to a white executive, who tried to tell her, a Black woman, that she didn’t understand Black audiences. America Ferrera of Superstore talked about an audition as a teenager, where a casting director asked her to read her lines “more Latina” and then dismissed her when she didn’t play the part in a stereotypical manner.
These behind-the-scenes stories are a little shocking and don’t necessarily paint the TV industry in the best light, so it’s a remarkable and laudable act of reflection to share them during a widely watched awards ceremony, and one that’s usually overwhelmingly self-congratulatory.
The obligatory industry nod never works
Every awards show makes a big to-do about not running too long, struggling to fit into the time slot afforded by the network and to ensure that they cut away to commercial breaks at just the right times. The Emmy Awards are no exception, generally limiting what are often entertaining, moving, gracious, or hilarious acceptance speeches to less than a minute, with the house orchestra playing louder if the winner talks for too long. The 2020 Emmy Awards featured winners delivering speeches from home, so producers didn’t cut anybody off, but the show still zipped along quickly and ran just a few minutes over its three-hour time slot.
They definitely could have cut a couple minutes out of the broadcast to fit, and it’s the same thing that all awards shows could cut out of their televised ceremonies: the vague, state-of-the-industry speech from a big-shot at the organization handing out the trophies. People tune in to the Emmy Awards to see celebrities and the shows they hold dear (which in 2020 included profound, important works like Watchmen and Mrs. America). Very few look forward to a rambling, sedate speech from a TV industry executive who isn’t exactly a household name. At the 2020 Emmys, Television Academy head Frank Scherma (above) at least ended his speech by introducing Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock, who then presented the Governors Award to Tyler Perry — but Winfrey and Rock didn’t need somebody to throw to them.
The Emmys comedy bits that landed really landed
At the 2019 Emmy Awards, HBO’s pitch-black hitman/actor comedy Barry was among the most nominated shows of the night, picking up nods for star Bill Hader as well as co-star Anthony Carrigan as cheerful (but brutal) Chechen gangster NoHo Hank. Barry didn’t air in the 2019-2020 season, so it didn’t get any nominations at the 2020 Emmys, but the broadcast did bring in Carrigan for a hilarious bit of character comedy. After host Jimmy Kimmel complained about the winners envelopes having not yet arrived, Carrigan, using a voice that sounded similar to NoHo Hank, appeared on stage as a postal worker — but not much hiding how he’s actually a vicious agent of an unclear foreign government. Sending up the recent United States Postal Service pre-election slowdown scandal, a gleefully menacing, thickly-accented Carrigan claimed to be “Derek,” a replacement mailman because his predecessor suffered an “unfortunate accident.”
Other cameo-oriented bits added to the Emmy Awards fun. David Letterman pre-taped a bit where he’s abandoned on a country road by an irate driver, and many favorites appeared in a package of TV stars discussing how they kept occupied during quarantine. Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell bragged about coupling with his wife, BoJack Horseman‘s Will Arnett talked about embracing his inner “a******,” and character actress Margo Martindale showed off her gardening skills, which was really just sneaking swigs from a bottle of booze hidden in a bush.
The Emmys bits that didn't work really didn't work
ABC aired the 2020 Emmy Awards and gave hosting duties to Jimmy Kimmel, star of the network’s late-night Jimmy Kimmel Live. The broadcast carried Kimmel’s usual vibe — silly, lightly satirical, and fun — but was also beset with comedy pieces going on for far too long. Perhaps the lack of a live audience affected the energy of the performers. At one point, Little Fires Everywhere stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington patched into the show to deliver some trite and tired coronavirus comedy. They claimed to be having themselves an early New Year’s Eve party, because 2020 has been so awful they want it to be over, and with quarantine, nobody even knows what day it is anyway.
Just before the awarding of the evening’s final trophy, Kimmel made a subtle allusion to the bungling of Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, a ceremony he hosted. Then, curiously, presenter Sterling K. Brown emerged and made virtually the same joke, and then kept making it. Playing off of how the producers of La La Land gave their speeches before learning that Moonlight had actually won, Brown rambled on about how happy he was that his NBC show, This Is Us, had secured Outstanding Dramatic Series, proving that network TV was not, in fact, dead. Then Brown suddenly realized he was holding an envelope, not an actual Emmy, and that he hadn’t won because This Is Us hadn’t even been nominated.
The deeply respectful 'in memoriam' segment
By no metric is it wonderful that a number of television industry luminaries passed away since the 2019 Emmy Awards, but many artists and performers who helped make TV better were acknowledged in the 2020 Emmy Awards’ “in memoriam” montage. Among those lost this past year: Jerry Stiller, Carell Spinney, Regis Philbin, Fred Willard, Naya Rivera, Diahann Carroll, James Lipton, Carl Reiner, and Chadwick Boseman. The tribute to these gone-too-soon icons of entertainment was one of the most creative, clever, and celebratory in recent memory. Many in the montage got more than just a still image and their name on a screen, but rather an individually curated image reflective of the things for which audiences might best know them. For example: Philbin appeared with an empty talk show set, composer Adam Schlesinger’s image was superimposed against sheet music, Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana was shown next to the starship Enterprise, and a photo of confetti-throwing comedian Rip Taylor was placed atop what looked like a highly magnified piece of the shiny stuff.
Meanwhile, rising cross-genre musical superstar and Prince devotee H.E.R. proved herself worthy of her hero’s legacy. The musician scored the memorial montage with a powerful, soulful, and heart-wrenching performance of the late Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” accompanying herself on the piano before switching to electric guitar for a blistering solo.
As good as it was at times, it was still the Emmys during lockdown
Through numerous jokes and sketches, 2020 Emmy Awards host Jimmy Kimmel did his best to own the fact that the show was taking place amid a pandemic, with all but a handful of presenters and winners stuck at their homes far away due to stay-at-home orders and coronavirus reduction measures. But in the end, it didn’t do much to diminish the sad tone that hung over the whole ceremony.
What’s supposed to be a glamorous event where every TV big-wig and glamorous star is one room for one night, all dressed to the nines and celebrating each other, turned out to be a glorified Zoom work meeting. Producers tried their hardest, and a weird Emmys is better than no Emmys at all, but the show was painfully awkward at times. Lots of winners had no choice but to deliver the most important speeches of their lives from their living room via weak internet connection or be beamed across the ether with non-syncing video and audio.
Most notably, perhaps, was Mark Ruffalo delivering an impassioned speech about empathy and kindness when he won for his work on I Know This Much is True, but something was lost in transmission without the energy and support of an audience of his peers cheering and applauding. The silence loudly hinted at viewers just what the pandemic had taken away from the 2020 Emmy Awards.
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